3 issues we would like to see being addressed at COP26

carbon dioxide emissions

By Scott Poulter

The UK will host the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31 to November 12.

The summit could not come at a more crucial moment in recent history, amid a deafening clamor for real action on carbon reductions. Even the Queen of England, HRM Queen Elizabeth II is wondering when the empty talk will stop, and substantive steps be taken.

The mounting human and capital costs of climate change-fueled extreme weather are making it plain that the time for action is now.

From wildfires to floods, there are few parts of the world which have not suffered from the early phase of the unfolding climate emergency in recent years.

The goal of the COP26 must be to minimize their future impact with substantial reductions in carbon emissions, or humans will be facing a very tough tomorrow indeed. Yet with the advent of COVID-19 we saw how carbon reductions can happen quickly.

...the issue now is not around how to decarbonize the energy sector, but what to do about other major polluting industries...

Now we are getting back to something like business as usual, we must ensure we don’t go back to greenhouse gas emissions as usual. One of the silver linings of our current situation is that as emissions have risen, the price of renewable energy generation has been falling.

Renewables have gained acceptance as economically viable solutions worldwide. To put this into perspective, between 2000 and 2020 renewable power generation capacity almost quadrupled, from 754 GW to 2.8 TW.

Costs have fallen sharply, thanks to steadily improving technologies, economies of scale, competitive supply chains and improving developer experience. As an example, costs for electricity from utility-scale solar PV fell a staggering 85% between 2010 and 2020.

As a result of these strides, the issue now is not around how to decarbonize the energy sector, but what to do about other major polluting industries.

Transportation, for example, is still a long way off the levels of electric vehicle (EV) penetration needed for effective decarbonization. With that in mind, we at Pacific Green have three requests from the great and the good now gathering in Scotland for COP26.

In summary these are increased government action to:

  • Reduce grid connection costs and complexity
  • Support solar PV-based EV charging stations
  • Create EV charging hubs in populated areas

Let’s take a closer look at these demands and why we’re making them, starting with connection costs. Worldwide, the cost and effort involved in connecting renewable energy to the grid is acting as a major brake on decarbonization.

Most existing grids were designed for centralized, large-scale generation.

What’s being demanded of them now is a more decentralized arrangement, where solar arrays and wind farms pop up in areas which are highly inconvenient to the existing infrastructure, which may also be well past its prime.

dawn electricity tower
Most existing grids were designed for centralized, large-scale generation.

In addition, areas which have large amounts of ambient energy—and are thus ideal for wind and/or solar developments—may be a long way from the urban and industrial centers which need their energy.

As a result, grid operators are either refusing to allow connection of renewables for fear of overloading the grid or facing significant costs for serious upgrades to local cables, substations and other infrastructure.

It’s not the grid operator’s fault that the generation landscape is changing so rapidly, but this is a de facto block on wind and solar. Clearly, there needs to be investment from the public purse.

A good example of where the government appears to be waking up to the need for investment is the US. Legislative proposals, now cleared by the Senate, originally appeared to dedicate a considerable $73 billion (£53 billion) to clean energy transmission.

That included upgrading the nation’s power infrastructure with ​“thousands of miles” of new transmission lines.

The same legislation would create a new Grid Deployment Authority to invest in research and development for advanced transmission and electricity distribution technologies

But even here, the disappointing takeaway is that the figure has already been scaled back to $65 billion (£47 billion), more than a quarter of which is aimed at making the existing grid more resilient, not necessarily building new power lines.

Only $2.5 billion (£1.8 billion) is explicitly targeting transmission grid expansion, in the form of federal loans to help projects reach financial viability. And that’s just in the US. Most other countries will also need to invest in grid infrastructure as the energy transition progresses.

Our other two requests relate to EV charging. This is already an issue at COP26, where lack of charging points for the luxury electric Jaguar cars made available to VIP delegates not only makes a mockery of some of the summit’s aims but also illustrates a global problem.

EV charging is an issue the UK government is very much aware of, with a  recent report stating: “The scale of the shift to EVs—requiring the development of an entirely new network—should not be underestimated."

“While it is difficult to know precisely how much charging will be needed, forecasts suggest that at least 280,000-480,000 public charge points will be needed by 2030, more than 10 times the current number (around 25,000).”

ev charging
“The scale of the shift to EVs—requiring the development of an entirely new network—should not be underestimated."

Turning back to the US infrastructure bill, we see that the bipartisan deal would invest $7.5 billion (£5.4 billion) to build out a national network of EV chargers, the first federal investment in EV charging infrastructure in the country.

But if the US is serious about switching to 100% electric vehicles, this is a drop in the ocean.

Researchers have found that meeting a 100% EV goal by 2035 will require investments of about $10 billion (£7 billion) per year through 2035 in charging infrastructure and upgrading distribution grids alone.

Given the stresses and strains being placed on the grid already by renewable generation, it seems sensible to ensure that at least some of those new charge points are powered by small-scale, on-site solar arrays.

This also means the installation can be off grid, an important consideration for remote areas. This is our second request.

The third area we’d like COP26 to consider is for support for EV charging hubs in densely populated areas where off-road charging is limited. The current investment round in the US focuses on charging for rural, disadvantaged and difficult-to-reach communities.

Urban populations may fall into the final category, but there needs to be a specific investment for those urban EV drivers who do not have the luxury of off-road parking.

Like much of the world—and the Queen—we are hoping that the coming COP26 generates more light than heat. If the changes include action on our three suggestions, so much the better. The whole world is watching.